Photographing the Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
I am just getting around to putting up some images from my trip a few weeks ago when I travelled to Yellowknife to see and photograph the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. (I previously wrote about photographing for the NWT SPCA and meeting all of the furries in this post.) I had signed up for a workshop with Dave Brosha and Paul Zizka who are incredible photographers – if you haven’t seen their portfolios, please check them out – so it was the opportunity to not only see this night-sky wonder, but also a chance to learn how to photograph it.
For many people, seeing the Northern Lights is on the bucket list. I have actually seen them before, but it was in September, so the display was much dimmer. Of course, we are dealing with the forces of nature, so there is no guarantee of seeing anything. But both Dave and Paul had chosen the optimum time of year to give us the best chance. And, that time, I discovered, was in February. In the Canadian Arctic.
I’m going to let that sink in for moment.
February was chosen because it is cold and clear, giving you the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Again, February. In the Arctic. At night. Because it is cold.
The only problem was: I really don’t like the cold. I don’t like the so-called cold in Toronto and try to make like a bear and hibernate whenever the winter hits. The idea of the cold in the Arctic…well, truthfully, I was a little scared. When the time came to leave, I thought maybe this was the worst idea I had ever come up with. But, I was booked, my bags were packed and my husband was pretty determined that I was getting on the plane.
The first night of the workshop and everyone was eagerly watching the Auroramax to see if the lights would make an appearance. It started slowly, but at about 9:00 p.m., we all loaded into cars and headed out to our first spot. The display that night was incredible! You could literally hear the cries of amazement from the groups of tourists assembled as the lights danced across the sky.
However, because it was the first night, it was all a bit overwhelming. I think quite a few of us had to relearn how our equipment worked. Working in almost complete darkness except for the full moon, along with a -41 temperature (with windchill)…well, there was a learning curve. Things like:
- What glove/mitt combination will allow me to preserve all of my fingers while still allowing me to change the settings on my camera? (I had brought along four pieces which lent itself to a dazzling array of combinations.)
- How do I hide that extra battery so that I can have a chance of finding it again under the numerous layers of clothes I am wearing? (I had five!)
- Does anyone else realize what an absolutely fantastic invention snow pants are? (I cannot believe how much I fought my parents growing up about wearing them while walking to middle school because they were not ‘cool’.)
- Is the unrecognizable person beside me, with whom I am having a conversation, a part of my group?(There were groups of tourists around and it’s hard to know what anyone looks like when they are bundled up.)
- How do I tighten and secure my tripod when I can barely feel it?
- Did my tripod just freeze in the open position and no longer fits into the car?!
While you might be chuckling as you read those questions, frostbite is a real possibility at those temperatures and it is best not to take chances. So, we left the car running the entire time. It gave anyone who needed it some respite if they got cold. (My lovely friend and host for the few days also kindly made us all hot chocolate and brought it in a large thermos – she’s the best!)
I have to say that I was always surprised when I brought my camera inside the car at night’s end how frozen it looked. But, it worked like a tank. Never gave me any problems and my batteries lasted very well.
By the second night, we were encouraged to push our creativity and see if we could do more than just ‘get green’ in our images. With some new found skills and experience, we set off! Some in the group had brought props, so we played around with those.
I call this the ultimate selfie. Yep, that’s me, sitting in the snow (snowpants, yea!) and just gazing at the wonder around me.
I sent this image back home to the amusement of my friends, all who know my aversion to cold. This is me, taking my last breath….
I also had a chance to play around with off camera lighting. Visualizing, pre-focussing, setting a timer, trudging through the surprisingly deep snow (whoops!) to stand absolutely still for a long exposure…for someone who had little to no experience with night photography, it was great fun!
On the third night, it was not looking too good for seeing the Aurora – we had a lot of cloud. But then it cleared up and were treated to another show. Nothing like getting an image of the full moon and the lights in one frame! This image was created on the Dettah Ice Road.
I also saw my first ‘moon dog’. Never having seen one before, I had nothing to compare it to, but I’m assured that this is a rather large one.
Towards the end of the night, people were trying all sorts of ideas. It’s nice when you have someone willing and able to swing burning materials around at great speed.
By the time I made it back to Toronto, I was dead tired, but happy. I walked out to meet my husband at the airport carrying my coat in my arms because I was too warm. It was -10C. My husband burst out laughing when he saw me. Here I was, the person who is cold inside the house most days during the winter walking around outside with just a light hoodie on. I guess I’ve got the North in my blood now…